Israeli Restrictions at Al-Aqsa Mosque Spark Protests
Western media is missing important context behind the deadly gunfight at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, says journalist and filmmaker Dan Cohen
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The Al-Aqsa Compound or Temple Mount in East Jerusalem has long been a flash point in the Israel Palestine Conflict. Now there is a new escalation. On Friday, Israel canceled prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the first time in decades. This came after a gun fight that left three Palestinian gunman and two Israeli soldiers dead. The Palestinians opened fire on Israeli forces before they were shot dead inside the compound. The Mosque has since reopened, but Palestinian worshipers are refusing to enter because Israel imposed new restrictions. Previous tensions at the Al-Aqsa Compound have led to deadly clashes including the protests that launched the Second Intifada in 2000. Dan Cohen is a journalist and filmmaker. He is the director of the upcoming documentary Killing Gaza. Dan, welcome.
DAN COHEN: Good to be with you, Aaron.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining me. Let’s talk first about what happened last week, this attack that led to deaths of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and then Israel closing Friday prayers at the Compound for the first time in decades.
DAN COHEN: Right, so three Palestinian citizens of Israel from actually the same family in the Northern city of Umm al-Fahm opened fire on Israeli occupation soldiers just outside the Compound and fled inside the Compound. They clashed with other soldiers there and were shot and then executed on the spot in a torrent of gunfire. The Israeli occupation canceled Friday prayers for the day, which as you described in the opening hasn’t happened in decades and instituted collective punishment shutting down the Muslim quarter of the old city for Palestinians. You just have bewildered tourists walking through not knowing what’s going on. The following day, the Israelis continued to keep it closed, keep the Al-Aqsa Compound closed, and then installed metal detectors as under the guise of security at the Compound.
It has since been reopened and that’s basically the point we’re at today. Actually, the director of the Al-Aqsa Compound, Shaykh Omar Kiswani, was detained and a number of Al-Aqsa guards were detained and interrogated. That is the situation right now. What’s missing from the story, and what I’ve described there is basically what we’ve heard in establishment media, which is all correct. The huge context that is missing, which might explain what precipitated this attack, was that there is a far right, what I would call an apocalyptic right-wing Israeli movement that tours the Al-Aqsa Compound under military protection on a daily basis where they make explicit threats to destroy the mosques hoping that they will provoke Palestinians to react violently.
Then the Israeli military will have the pretext to arrest, expel, and even kill anyone who resists with the idea that eventually Israel will control the entire Compound and be able to destroy the mosques and build a temple in its place. That’s basically the missing context that we just did not see in establishment media.
AARON MATE: In this movement, who are they?
DAN COHEN: Well, the temple movement, it comes from religion. It’s a fundamentalist ideology that the way to … what Judaism for thousands of years has understood as Jewish redemption, the building of a temple but by supernatural means, it was completely forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. It would fall from the sky according to Orthodox Jews. Then we would have a Jewish kingdom of God, but in Orthodox Judaism it was completely forbidden. What religious Zionism did is take that idea that instead of God making it happen, Jews would essentially become God and make it happen themselves and build it. Originally, the whole idea of building the temple was forbidden. Over the decades, since the advent of Zionism more than 120 years ago, this idea has slowly, slowly, slowly mainstreamed.
In the past decades and especially the past couple years, it had mainstreamed into Israeli society as religious Zionist fundamentalists have achieved prominence and really taken over the state. There’s been a theocratization of the Israeli military, the institutions. Now this movement to destroy the Al-Aqsa Compound is positioned as the tip of the spear in the Zionist project, in Israeli society, against Palestinians. It’s understood as the way, really, to expel all Arabs and create this ultimate war to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ll read off a few quotes from Israeli officials, first from the temple movement itself, the official body temple movement in response to this weekend’s incident.
They said, “We must liberate the Temple Mount from the murderous Islam and return it to the people of Israel.” That’s the fanatical movement, their official statement. Then we have members of Parliament echoing that. Member of Parliament Nissan Slomiansky, “Expel Arabs from the Compound.” Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, “Expel Arabs from the compound.” Member of Parliament Motiv Yogev, “Expel Arabs,” basically, he didn’t say it explicitly but, “from the West Bank City Nablus, from the West Bank City of Hebron, from the Al-Aqsa Compound.” It’s very much mainstreaming Israeli society, and it’s extremely dangerous.
AARON MATE: Dan, when you talk about them visiting the Al-Aqsa Compound under police protection, can you talk about what that looks like and why you think it’s provocative to Palestinians?
DAN COHEN: Well, basically you have Israeli settlers surrounded by Israeli soldiers, heavily armed Israeli soldiers, going around the premises of the compound, explicitly they’ll sing chants of, “We will build the temple,” which implies, “We will destroy your mosques, because there’s not really room for two.” It’s an Islamic worship site. It’s been that way for about 1,500 years. If you go up there and watch these guys, they’ll also explicitly call for demolishing the mosque. It’s anything to provoke. It’s not just my assessment. Actually, if you look at what Avi Dichter said in 2008 when he was the Minister of Internal Security, the Israeli Minister of Internal Security, he said, “Jewish prayer at the compound would serve as a provocation and cause bloodshed.”
Since then, to get an idea of how much it’s mainstreamed, Dichter was one of the MKs who just said, “We should assert Jewish sovereignty at the Al-Aqsa Compound.” It goes to show how this movement mainstreamed, that he full well knows that it’s actually a provocation but we should do it anyway because it’s seen as a populist statement in Israel.
AARON MATE: Right. Dan, so on that point, it reminds me of previous incidents at the Al-Aqsa Compound or Temple Mount. In ’96 when Netanyahu was serving his first term as Prime Minister he authorized the digging of these tunnels around the site, which angered Palestinian worshipers and sparked deadly clashes. Then of course, much more consequentially in 2000 right after the failure of the Camp David Peace Talks in the summer of 2000, tensions were very high, and in the fall you have Ariel Sharon, the former IDF Commander and Prime Minister, visiting the Al-Aqsa Compound under police protection. That sparked the clashes that set off the Intifada.
DAN COHEN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s the most sensitive spot in the country and has impact on the region as well. We’ve seen time and time again that it’s the dome of the rock, the golden dome is … they see it as the big golden button to really set it all off, and so they continue to go and set up sparks. As you said, we’ve seen in ’96 with Netanyahu’s opening of the Western Wall Tunnels and in Ariel Sharon storming the Compound with hundreds of soldiers surrounding him and helicopters overhead. It’s not as if these settlers are going up there and saying, “Let’s have some kind of peaceful anything.” They make their intention very, very clear to the Palestinians up there. It’s really no secret to Palestinians.
AARON MATE: Dan, let’s talk about what’s happening right now. Netanyahu has announced new restrictions on the site. There are security cameras now and also metal detectors. Palestinians, as I mentioned, have been protesting this, refusing to enter, and actually praying outside, refusing to go inside and say their prayers. Can Israel say, “We’re only doing this in response to the fact that these Palestinian gunman open fire and killed our soldiers?”
DAN COHEN: Well, I mean, Israel has an agreement with the Jordanians as part of the Peace Agreement with the Jordanians, that part of that is Israel coordinates everything with the Muslim Religious Endowment at the Al-Aqsa Compound called the [Walkith] and Israel does not really have the power to make these unilateral decisions. It’s not exactly surprising the Palestinians are protesting that because it is, again, it is an Islamic worship site. The arrangement has been that Jews and that non-Muslims are allowed to visit but are not allowed to worship there. Israel really doesn’t have any right to the place. It’s occupied territory and it’s an illegal military occupation despite the agreement with the Jordanians.
Yeah, we see that Palestinians are resisting by refusing to go through the metal detectors. One of the really crazy things is an Israeli member of Knesset took one of these photos of Palestinians doing a prayer in protest in front of the metal detectors. In the photo, they’re on the ground praying in front of the Israeli soldiers and he said, “They’re bowing down to the Israeli soldiers as they should.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what he said. He’s talking in the terms of this is what should happen in the theocracy when they build temple that they want, that Arabs will bow down to Jews. This is the ISIS-like mentality that is taking over.
AARON MATE: Dan, you mentioned Jordan, so can you talk about what regional implications this whole escalation has and what you expect to see going forward as now Palestinians are gathering and protesting at this very sensitive site?
DAN COHEN: Well, I mean, the first thing is that we’re going to see this is the beginning of Israel implementing the model that it established or that it used in Hebron in terms of after extreme violence. In 1994, after the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by the Brooklyn-born settler, Baruch Goldstein, Israel partitioned the mosque and said, “Okay, now we have to allow these settlers to have equal rights as Palestinians even though it’s Palestinian area,” and at the same time turned the old city of Hebron into a ghost town. If you go to Hebron now, it’s one of the most shocking forms of Israeli apartheid that you’ll see.
That is what’s gradually happening in Jerusalem. Now, how that will affect the … That has been talked about in the Knesset, implementing that strategy in Jerusalem. We saw on Friday and Saturday the old city shut down. [crosstalk]
AARON MATE: Dan, I should say, at least in public Netanyahu says he’s committed to the status quo.
DAN COHEN: Right. I mean, he says that in the same way he says he’s committed to the peace process. The status quo continues to change under Netanyahu more and more. We see restrictions on Palestinian worship, freedom of worship at the Al-Aqsa Compound, and expansion of settler visits to the Compound. It’s really just paying lip service while the reality on the ground is that the status quo is more or less becoming meaningless.
AARON MATE: The regional context, Dan.
DAN COHEN: The regional context is this is a crucial part of Israel’s agreement with Jordan. Israel’s agreement with Jordan has what is euphemistically termed security coordination as well. Of course, there are millions of Palestinians who would love to return home to Palestine that Jordan essentially prevents for Israel, and Jordan is also an ally of the U.S., and Israel, and Syria. The Israelis do not really want to turn Jordan against their interests in Syria as they continue. Israel announced yesterday it’s rejecting a ceasefire as if it has that right. It’s up to Netanyahu what happens from this point out, but it remains to be seen.
I think in the longterm, we’re going to see the eventual segregation and partition of the Al-Aqsa Compound, which could spark mass clashes. Actually, there were protests yesterday here in Amman saying, “We are all responsible for the Al-Aqsa Compound.” The Jordanian government is forced to make a statement condemning Israeli actions there, so Israel is really rocking the boat.
AARON MATE: Just to clarify there for people in terms of this ceasefire in Syria, Dan’s referring to the U.S.-Russia negotiated ceasefire in southwestern Syria, which Israel has rejected because it says that it’s empowering Iran. Dan Cohen, we’ll leave it there though. Independent journalist and filmmaker, director of the upcoming documentary Killing Gaza. Dan, thanks a lot.
DAN COHEN: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.